Monday, October 14, 2013

Can Bramleys make it big in Japan?

I've done quite a few posts about how great I and members of the Bramley Apple Fan Club here in Japan think Bramley apples are, and about their story here, but what about Japan in general - what are the chances of these cooking apples being a hit over here?

Indeed, don't I have my work cut out for me in general, starting a business based around British sweets when so many of them are unknown here and not very, erm, 'elegant' in appearance?

Let's begin with the taste - I did a little experiment recently, sending a few pies to friends in Kyushu to see what they'd make of their first taste of Bramley apple pie. The feedback was mixed.. "certainly unique, I think I like it" but "too sour, almost like vinegar! The little kids couldn't eat it" gosh.

True, I'd held back a little on the sugar a little with the idea that Japanese people prefer subtly sweet desserts (甘さ控えめ / amasa hikaeme), but it certainly seems that further experimentation is needed. Comparing a few well known British chef's Bramley apple pie recipes, sugar ranges from 10-20% of the weight of prepared apples, though it of course also depends how tart your particular apples are to begin with and whether you add lemon juice to stop them browning etc.

At the recent Bramley apple lunch I sat next to a master pâtissier, owner of a famous French-style cake shop in Tokyo who has been using Bramley apples for 15 years. He said that using enough sugar with the Bramleys is important as it brings out their 'umami', and talked about how butter also enhances the natural sweetness in the apple.

It's going to be important to find just the right balance, as people with Bramley cravings would be most disappointed to have the unique flavour smothered in a sweetness too syrupy. Challenge!

How the pie is explained to customers will probably be the key to the chance of a positive first encounter - someone expecting American style apple pie might end up a bit shocked tasting a spoonful of British style pie. Like when I first tried kombucha - I was told it was "tea" and expected something astringent and bracing and had quite a shock with a mouthful of salty broth. If it had been described to me as tasting like soup I may have liked it immediately!

Additional challenges for apple pies and various rough-and-ready English desserts in Japan come from their appearance and use. My friends in Kyushu were concerned that people might not be able to cut neat slices out of the pie with the filling being puree rather than the slices of fruit that they are used to seeing in apple pie. Similarly, attendees at the Bramley lunch told Celia that things like the apples cooking down to a puree and juice/jam leaking from the top of the pie are often seen as failures in Japan - all things that are not problems at all for the enthusiastic British family waiting to dig-in after dinner.

Being unpretentious and not too fancy makes these desserts somehow more genuine, certainly more authentically British :) Are we too serious for frills, embarrassed by something too showy? The French friends in this funny and savagely-written article may have a point "This so-called 'baking' is not patisserie, it's masonry".

These kinds of dishes are firstly comfort foods in the UK, good honest treats made at home for sharing. In Japan however, perhaps more of my customers would be wanting to use them as gifts, and perhaps they'd prefer individual portions of something a bit neater-looking.

Still lots to think about and tinker with then, and I imagine that things will need to evolve during the course of the business too.

There is definitely something special about the flavour of Bramley though, and I think it will win many more Japanese fans - that balance of acidity and sweetness is mouth-wateringly craving-inducing once the taste has been acquired. After all, it has been charming people for over 200 years.

So yes, I can see Bramleys being fiercely popular with those people it wins over in Japan, though it might take a couple of encounters with the fruit to get there.

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